The Ram Navami procession has been an annual affair, but its spread to small towns, more so in Bihar and West Bengal, has been a recent phenomenon. The Chaiti Durga idol immersion also (must confess that it is some sort of a rarity still) presumably happens every year.
Why did the two auspicious events in the Hindu calendar create so much animosity among religious communities this year? Slogan-shouting and some fringe elements trying to provoke members of other communities, I bet, would have happened before.
Lathi wielding Ram bhakts (an oxymoron to me) would have entered religious processions before. So what was unique this year?
Surge in Mass Mobilisation for Religious Processions
The answer is very simple. We have entered the pre-Lok Sabha election year which has mostly been bloodier than normal years. There was a sudden spike in the number of inter-community clashes in 2008-09. 2013-14 was bloodier than most years, not just in politically significant Uttar Pradesh, but elsewhere too.
And if the build up to the 2019 general elections is any indication, we are headed for a year full of riots and communal disturbances. Obviously, some groups reap the benefits of riots during elections.
Let us take the case of the Ram Navami processions in Bihar. The scale of mass mobilisation has been baffling this year and so is the insistence among protagonists on taking the contentious route. According to The Indian Express report from the communally-disturbed Aurangabad in Bihar, “the police, according to witnesses, were caught unawares by the huge crowd... against 2,000 to 3,000 people that have taken part in the annual procession so far, former JD(U) president Tejendra Kumar Singh said, there were nearly 10,000 people at two points from where the processions took off on 26 March.”
What explains the five-fold surge in the crowd, with many of them, according to the Indian Express report, carrying swords, lances and wooden sticks? Mass mobilisation on such a scale must have been part of the planning to create fissures where none exist.
Bihar has been extremely vulnerable this year despite self-proclaimed secularist Nitish Kumar at the helm.
Rise in Communal Riots in Bihar in 2013
The state has had a long history of communal harmony since the 1990s. Of the places that have seen communal clashes recently, Samastipur and Nalanda have rarely witnessed such disturbances in the recent past. But sporadic incidents of communal strife engulfing as many as 10 districts since the Araria Lok Sabha by-election result, must have come as a shock to all state watchers.
Incidentally, all such incidents have happened in districts (other than Darbhanga and Bhagalpur) where Muslims are close to 10 percent or less of the total population. There is therefore a pattern of scaring the ‘others’ where the possibility of any retaliation is very remote.
And the pattern seems like an action replay of what happened a year before the last Lok Sabha elections. According to a Factly report, the number of incidents of communal clashes tripled in 2013 in Bihar, from nearly 20 a year to more than 60 in the pre-election year. And the Indian Express has reported on Monday that nearly 60 incidents have already taken place in the first three months of this year.
At the national level too, while there was a spike of 20 percent in the number of communal incidents in 2008, the spike was to the tune of nearly 18 percent in 2013, with Uttar Pradesh alone accounting for close to 30 percent of all such cases that year.
West Bengal, which has by and large been peaceful all through the decades, unfortunately has joined the party, with communal clashes reported from Asansol and Basirhat areas, among others.
Bihar Is Paying the Price of Nitish's Vulnerability
The fact that there is a sharp jump in the number of communal incidents a year prior to the Lok Sabha elections, not just once but repeatedly, only shows that religious processions are conveniently used by others to foment trouble for tangible political gains. Communal clashes therefore should be seen as nothing more than the politics of power being played out on the streets, using precious human lives as tools. Yes, tools and nothing more than that.
But why has there been a special focus on Bihar and West Bengal this time over erstwhile vulnerable states like Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh? The politics of the two chief ministers – Nitish Kumar and Mamata Banerjee respectively –offers some answer.
While Nitish used to be firm on such issues in the past, his political vulnerability after constant vacillation has eroded his power and authority as an effective administrator.
He is no longer seen as a vote catcher and therefore the natural leader of the coalition he heads at the moment. With a perceived weak leader at the helm in the state, there is an intense competition among political parties to grab the space ceded by him.
The problem with Mamata Banerjee, on the other hand, has been one of managing perception. With an aggressive espousal of certain issues and symbols, her administration is perceived as favouring a particular group to the detriment of others.
This has created an opening for communal groups to take roots in the state which has been virtually riots free since 1946. Hence the spike in manufactured communal clashes.
Should we allow our representatives to create fissures in lieu of our votes, now that there is an established pattern?